Most, if not all, countries consider a strong national defense to be the only barrier standing between them and invading forces. Since the beginning of time, countries have invested in the idea that warfare was knocking at their door. It often was, so we can’t really say they were wrong. From the Roman conquerors to the British Empire, there has always been major military spending among superpowers. Today, the United States is one of the world’s most powerful countries. Naturally, this means they pay out more for military expenses.

SIPRI Military Expenditures Database is used to produce the following table from 2013 that lists the world’s top ten military spenders based on constant (2011) prices and exchange rates:

The Spending War 1

The United States spent over three times more than the runner up, China. If you add the totals, the US spent almost as much as the other 9 countries combined ($631.5B). Something you might notice is that 7 out of the top 10 spenders were actively fighting during WWII or were directly impacted by it. After defeating the Axis Powers, the United States and Russia in particular spent heavily on military to fuel the Cold War. China’s large amount of military funding should come as no surprise, considering the attacks the country suffered during WWII. Once a war is fought, especially if it’s a large war, regrouping and resource gathering naturally follow.

It seems pretty cut and dried, right? Wrong. If we take a look at military expenditures as a percentage of a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product), we get a completely different outcome:

The Spending War 2

Notice that Russia and Saudi Arabia are the only two countries that appear on both lists? This just goes to show how attitudes towards military spending can be perceived. The United States may spend the most funds on their military, but they don’t spend the highest GDP percentage. Other countries, such as Oman, were willing to spend a bigger chunk of their GDP on their military.

Below is a map that illustrates countries military expenditures in percentage of GDP in 2013:

The Spending War 3

The United States has always been and still is the biggest spender. In 2010, they peaked at $720B and have been declining since. Both China and Russia’s military has been increasing periodically since 2000. Assuming these trends continue, China and Russia could end up paying out more for military expenditures than any other country, including the United States. Assuming this scenario played out, it would take between 10 and 20 years for China to become the largest spender with Russia following behind.

The Spending War 4

Of course, there is always the possibility that some event will trigger more spending in the United States. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, spending increased dramatically and didn’t peak until 9 years after the September 11th terrorist attacks. For all we know, there could be a foreign or domestic conflict that boosts military spending out of the gradual decline it’s been in over the past few years.

No matter what happens, recent history suggests that the United States, China and Russia will continue to be the 3 biggest military funders. The graph below demonstrates in share of GDP the relatively constant state of military spending for the 3 countries after the Cold War era:

The Spending War 5

Data Source: SIPRI Military Expenditures Database – http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database